Wednesday, April 16, 2014
In last week’s issue, we spoke with ambient composer Steve Roach about the 30th anniversary of his landmark album Structures from Silence. Originally issued in DIY fashion on cassette by Roach himself, the three-song suite quickly gained notice. On April 15th, the album sees deluxe treatment courtesy Projekt Records. In addition to a clarity-enriching remastering job, the new edition features 2012 and ‘13 recordings by Roach that find him exploring the Structures sound and style from his Timeroom studio in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson.We ended up with more material than we could fit into the feature, so enjoy this extended Q&A with Roach and a sneak peek at his next project.
Tucson Weekly: I understand that you drove race cars in your youth?
Steve Roach: Growing up in Southern California in that era of the ‘70s — the whole spawn of the baby boomer wave — motocross was really kind of born in southern California. I was right where it was all emerging. If I wasn’t out hiking in the desert I really embraced this sport that was right in our backyard. It wasn’t as incongruent [with music] as you would think, because there’s a real kind of discipline you have to have. If you’re going to do it, you have to be fully awake and present. Your life depends on it. You’re completely in. You’re inside of it; your life depends on it. That set the tone.
That makes sense in relation to your music.
The thing that really shaped me in that time was a lot of time spent in the deserts outside of San Diego. Just in quiet, in silence, [listening to] desert sounds, the sound of the space itself. Tuning into that. My parents introduced me to that while world before I could drive. We’d go out desert camping, that sort of thing. We’d go out into the mountains of San Diego and to the ocean. So later on when I was able to start driving myself to these places, I might start out in the mountains mid-day and watch the sunset at the ocean. Those kinds of landscapes and atmospheric dynamics set the tone early on for me as an artist in terms of the kinds of spaces I wanted to be in and draw from.
What were you listening to then?
A lot of European music: Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül, Popul Vuh; all that sort of music that had grown out of the sixties experimentation. There was a real psychedelic quality to it.I was drawn to the more progressive stuff, [like] Pink Floyd and Yes, but that music still felt pretty tethered down to the ground. I wanted something that was more expansive, that started moving beyond your perception of time. That’s when I discovered Timewind by Klaus Schulze, with 30-minute songs on both sides
Your first two records, Now and Traveler show that German space music influence most clearly.
With Now and Traveler I made a conscious decision: I wanted to create shorter pieces. Rather than do these 30-minute sides, I wanted to create songs that were like stops on a road — like Tucson, on to Phoenix, on to San Diego, to Santa Barbara, to San Francisco, to Portland and on to Vancouver. I wanted to that feeling of a journey across an album.
After making albums that focused on shorter pieces, you shifted into longform composition with Structures from Silence in 1984.
Yeah. Early into my career, I was making deliberate choices about doing shorter pieces, and then here comes [title track] “Structures from Silence.” It has no references to anything I had been listening to from Europe. It wasn’t the repetitive sequencer-style stuff we’d been hearing from Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and all that. Structures is where influence of my environment really took over in my work — [tapping into] the space you find yourself in when you’re in the desert and time slows down, your sense of awareness gets expands and is magnified. That sort of thing was very consciously coming into the music. I was making drives from Los Angeles — where I’d moved to do electronic music — to Joshua Tree, and then bringing that feeling back.
How long did you work on Structures?
The pieces were recorded over a year. I wasn’t thinking, “I’m going to make an album of this.” I was just recording and living in it. . My little place in Culver City was pretty much a 24/7 laboratory. I’d get off work and be right back into the studio, step right back into this space.After a year, I had those three tracks. I had more tracks, but those three tracks found themselves together on a cassette tape. I thought, “This fits.” The songs had that feeling.At that point, the Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer had emerged. The early polyphonic synthesizers just hadn’t been available previously, to do something of that lush nature. It was almost like I’d been waiting for them to build that instrument. I knew guys at Oberheim, and I’d go over there while they were designing it. It was almost like I was waiting for them to take it out of the oven, you know? I’d play early versions, and get to hear it.
And those sounds influenced what you wanted to make?
Yeah, those sheets of harmonic waves of warmth. Lush, perfect dark purple you want to wrap yourself in. I knew those instruments were coming, so I was envisioning the material I wanted to draw from it. But you know, that’s the same instrument Van Halen used on “Jump.”